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s a c i i u m 55 



The Cree Syllabary 



John D. Nichols 



The Cree syllabary, or syllables, is a shorthand-based script written left to right, em- 
ploying geometric characters, some representing syllables and some representing sin- 
gle segments. Created in 1840 for two Algonquian languages of Canada, Cree and 
Ojibwe, it was adapted in Canada for Athabaskan and Inuit (Eskimo) languages, and, 
in China, influenced the Pollard script (section 52; Enwall 1 994)- Until recently it 
chiefly appeared in printed translations of Christian sacred texts and liturgies, and in 
handwritten letters and personal records. Syllabic typewriters and, beginning in the 
1980s, personal computers have allowed control of the printing technology to shift 
from missionaries to native speakers; many schoolbooks, periodicals, and official 
documents now appear in the indigenous languages written in syllabics. Syllables are 
particulary valued for the ease and speed with which minimal literacy can be 
achieved, and for their distinctiveness from the scripts of the dominant colonial lan- 
guages. Syllabic text looks indisputably Indian or Inuit. In the 1 990s, syllabic scripts 
were being documented for inclusion in international standard character coding for 
computers. 

Algonquian syllabaries 

The Cree syllabary was devised by James Evans (1801-1846), a Wesleyan mission- 
ary, at Norway House in then Rupert's Land, now Manitoba. Evans had developed a 
Roman orthography for Ojibwe in Ontario, based on a sophisticated analysis of its 
sound system, and had presented it in a primer-style syllabary chart. Struck by reports 
in the mission press of the success of the Cherokee syllabary, and familiar with non- 
Roman shorthand and Devanagari scripts, Evans experimented with alphabetic and 
syllabic non-Roman characters for writing Ojibwe. 

Arriving at a new mission station at Norway House in 1 840, he revised his sylla- 
bary for Cree, the local language closely related to the Ojibwe he knew, drawing on 
British shorthand for most of the characters. In 1841 he printed a hymnbook entirely 
in syllabics using handmade type, later replaced by type from England made to his 
specifications. The syllabary was rapidly indigenized, being spread by its first Native 



Acknowledgment: The author would like to thank Doug Hitch for help with Inuktitut and Athabaskan. 

599 



V • 


A 4 


t> • 


<J « 


• o « 


~1 ne 


p »i 


__J mo 


l_«a 


C B 


U ta 


n ti 


^ to 


Cta 


/ t 


S ke 


P Id 


cJ ko 


t ka 


h k 


■"0 ne 


cj* ni 


_ p no 


CLna 


> n 


"U 1« 


n_ii 


b lo 


d i* 


* 1 


<^. re 


./» rl 


J- TO 


"b » 


z r 


<-, se 


^ si 


(1 so 


S - 


« a 


-n *• 


^>yi 


-^ yo 


l>y« 


+ y 


tea 


ptei 


J too 


L*» 


- tc 


V P« 


A Pi 


y po 


<!» 


* p 


V* ** 


A" 1 


£J wo 


<3« wa 


o W 


m WOW 


. wiw 
A- 


^ wow 


waw 





figure 6o. Western Algonquian syllabary, Roman Catholic variant (Anamie Nagamonan 1965). 

In every community in which syllabics are written, there are local and personal 
styles in character inventory, shape, and writing conventions. There is no standard- 
ized spelling for any dialect of Cree or Ojibwe; however, fitting the shorthand origins 
of the system, writers may use plain syllabics, indicating only the bare outline of syl- 
lable structure, or pointed syllabics, adding diacritics all the way up to phonemic tran- 
scription, the full realization of which is rare. Many writers put spaces or dots 
between words or prefixes; others write all the characters equally far apart with no 
word division. The period x is the only distinctive common punctuation mark, the oth- 
ers being as in English. 



Characteristic features 

Vowels that begin syllables are written with a triangle syllabic, rotated through four 
positions to show the vowel quality. Front vowels have a vertical axis and are related 
by inversion thus: Ve,A /; back vowels have a horizontal axis and are related by re- 



KEY TO THE 


CREE SYLLABIC SYSTEM. 




VOWEL& 






m in hot*. 

i 


at i In pin, 
e 


Mtaao, 



aeia ptua. 


Mia Mm, 

a 


final 
Ooo- 


V 


A 





< 


<J 




W wa V- 


we A- 


wo > 


wo <• 


wa <' 




P pa V 


pe A 


po > 


pn < 


pa < 


i 


T ti U 


te n 


to > 


tu C 


ta C 


/ 


K ka q 


ke P 


ko d 


ka b 


k» b 


\ 


Ch ch& 1 


che r 


oho J 


coa I 


oha I 


• 


M ma 1 


me r 


mo J 


mn L 


ma L 


< 


N na -o 


ne a* 


no -o 


nn o. 


na q- 


} 


S sa S 


se V 


60 / 


sa k 


sa V> 


•»* 


Y ya *» 


ye i* 


yo ** 


yo S 


ya '* 


• 




Final w . 


• • 




ft i • 
Aspirated 


Goal k 


■ 


Extra signs— X = 
•' sr h before a ^ 
" = a soft gutta 


s Christ, $ = r, * : 

rowel. 

ral b when before 


= I, s wi, 
a consonant 



figure 59. Western Algonquian syllabary (Book of Common Prayer n.d). 
users prior to its introduction by other missionaries, who were often reluctant to adopt 
it. It has been given an indigenous origin in Cree legend (Dusenberry 1962: 267-69), 
although some have seen its sources in quill and bead work designs. 

The Western Algonquian syllabary, in which the Cree dialects west of James Bay 
are usually written, is the direct descendent of Evans's syllabary. In 1865, changes in- 
troduced to this around James Bay (in the 1850s) were standardized, and additional 
characters were added, to create the Eastern Algonquian syllabary, used to write Cree 
and Naskapi east of James Bay, as well as Ojibwe. The most used characters of both 
sets are given in table 55.1 and as syllabary charts in figure 59 (Western), 
figure 60 (a Roman Catholic variant of Western), and figure 61 (Eastern). 



602 PART IX: SCRIPTS INVENTED IN MODERN TIMES 



T? • 


A * 


t> ° 


<J * 


• o V 


~~| me 


|- ml 


_J »o 


L.«» 


c m 


U te 


n t± 


^ to 


Cta 


/ t 


S k» 


P Id 


c; ko 


fJ3 *• 


s k 


-"0 ne 


<T n4 


_D no 


a_na 


» n 


"U le 


n_n 


b> lo 


d la 


s 1 


<\ re 


^ ri 


4> ro 


•^ ra 


X P 


<-, se 


S a± 


J so 


S « 


a a 


s *• 


^7± 


-^ yo 


1> y* 


+ y 


tea 


ptci 


Jtco 


Lt« 


- tc 


V P« 


A Pi 


y po 


<p* 


* p 


V» «* 


A w* 


£J wo 


<3*wa 


© w 


v- 1ww 


A»« 


^ wow 


waw 





figure 6o. Western Algonquian syllabary, Roman Catholic variant Qinamie Nagamonan 1965). 
In every community in which syllabics are written, there are local and personal 
styles in character inventory, shape, and writing conventions. There is no standard- 
ized spelling for any dialect of Cree or Ojibwe; however, fitting the shorthand origins 
of the system, writers may use plain syllabics, indicating only the bare outline of syl- 
lable structure, or pointed syllabics, adding diacritics all the way up to phonemic tran- 
scription, the full realization of which is rare. Many writers put spaces or dots 
between words or prefixes; others write all the characters equally far apart with no 
word division. The period x is the only distinctive common punctuation mark, the oth- 
ers being as in English. 



Characteristic features 

Vowels that begin syllables are written with a triangle syllabic, rotated through four 
positions to show the vowel quality. Front vowels have a vertical axis and are related 
by inversion thus: V e, A /; back vowels have a horizontal axis and are related by re- 



ALPHABET, 

OB EATHEB SYLLABAMTM. 



a 


a e, i e ooon a 
V A A > b 4 4 





P 


V A A > > < < 


< 


t 


u n A > i c 4 


c 


k 


9 P £ d J b fe 


b 


ch 


1 P ^ J J L I 


If 


m 


1 r r j J l L 


L 


n 


•n <r <r .o -o a. d. 


cu 


s 


»i i* i> /• i* K k 


s 


sb 


I J" ^ r» e *» H 


% 


7 


^ i* r* V V V V 




t 


-u «. i. ? > S < 


« 


1 


• • , 


<~ 


T 


V A A > 5> < < 


« 


W 


•V »A *A *t v 'l> *4 # 4 




X 

1 

n 


The character for Christ, 

- *l p a. :> c L n* 
le na ke nn to tu ma tin 





figure 6i. Eastern Algonquian syllabary (Horden 1925). 

flection thus: > o, < a. The vowels form the first row of the chart in that order, fol- 
lowing the alphabetical order of Evans's Ojibwe Roman orthography, which used the 
letters a e o u for the same sounds. 

Consonant-initial syllables (except those beginning with [w]) are written with 
syllabics in which the shape shows the consonant, and the orientation shows the vow- 
el. There are two orientation patterns. First, symmetrical shapes for [p] and [t] share 
the vowel orientations of the vowel triangle, e.g. V pe, A /?/, > po, < pa, as does the 



nonsymmetrical shape for [J]: X se, S si, ~ so, <s> sa. Second, the nonsymmetrical 
shapes for [k], [tf], [m], [n], [s], and [j] — consisting of a vertical line (in the case of 
[n], a circle) with a differentiating angle, curve, line, or circle at one quadrant — have 
the front vowels related to the back vowels by inversion, with the vowels within each 
set distinguished by reflection, e.g. N se, t si, A so, k sa. As Cree dialects from Man- 
itoba west do not have [J], its row is usually left out of Western syllabaries, although 
it appears in the original syllabary intended for Ojibwe. The order of the consonant 
rows in the syllabary charts derives from that in Evans's Ojibwe Roman orthography 
chart. 

The consonants [1] and [r], needed in certain Cree dialects and in foreign words 
and names, are written in the original Western syllabary with an alphabetic character, 
reflected to distinguish the two as $ I and £ r. The Eastern syllabary has full syllables 
for [1], namely -> le, c- //, _> lo, <_ la in the second orientation pattern; and for [r], 
namely -v re, n. ri, P ro, S ra, with a unique orientation pattern. These sets are ordered 
at or near the end of the chart. The Western Roman Catholic syllabary in figure 60 
has different syllables for [r] and [1], and a different order of the rows. 

Prevocalic [w] is written with a dot at mid line (some local styles use two dots, 
one above the other). The symbol follows the syllabic in Western, but precedes it in 
Eastern, and in Western as written on James Bay. The | w] syllables thus are Western 
V- we, A- wi, >• wo, <• wa, and Eastern -V «A •> •<. The [w] row may be added to 
the chart after the vowel row or following the [j] row; or the [w] dot may be treated 
on the side as a diacritic, or left off the chart entirely. A CVV syllable is written in the 
same way, with the [w] dot written outside the syllabic although it sounds inside the 
syllable, e.g. Western V- pwe, Eastern -V. 

Consonants closing a syllable are written with small alphabetic characters, called 
finals, originally at mid line, but now usually superscripted; local usage in writing po- 
sition and relative size varies. The finals are given as a fifth column of the chart fol- 
lowing the four vowel columns. 

The shape of the Western finals indicates the manner of articulation of the conso- 
nant, with the orientation (and in one instance, size) providing further differentiation. 
A straight line represents oral stops, thus ' -p, ' -t, v -A\ -v. A vertical semicircle rep- 
resents nasals, with c -m and 3 -n distinguished by reflection. A horizontal semicircle 
represents sibilants, with " -s and " -s distinguished by inversion. A circle represents 
semivowels, large and at midline as o -w; and small and above, or as a superscript to 
a syllabic, as ° -v, now usually written with the final + -v in Western Canada. 

All but the [w] and [j] finals are replaced in the Eastern syllabary with small a- 
orientation syllables, e.g. °~ -n, sometimes handwritten as superscripted or full-size i- 
position syllables, e.g. °" -n or o- ni. As in the Western syllabary, a large midline circle 
o stands for final [w] and a small superposed or superscripted circle ° for final [j], al- 
though many writers use either size of circle for both [w] and [j], or replace the [j] 
circle with an a-position [j] syllabic ^ or an /-position [j ] syllabic ^. Added for word- 
final Cw clusters in a Quebec Cree dialect are small ^-position syllables, e.g. d -kw. 



The initial member of a consonant cluster can be written with a final, e.g. Cree 
f~YV mistik 'tree', <r nx amisk 'beaver'. In Ojibwe, writing the initial nasal of a con- 
sonant cluster is optional. 

[h] or [?] before vowels, or the preaspiration of consonants, may be written with 
the final " -h, e.g. Cree L"A"b> mahihkan 'wolf, <TP^ askihk 'kettle, pail'. This 
character is often treated as the final for the vowel row in syllabary charts but is some- 
times omitted from them; writing [h] is an optional feature, used mainly in pointed 
syllables. In some styles the most common word-final clusters may be written with x , 
[hk] in Cree and [nk] in Ojibwe. 

Vowel length may be marked with a dot over a syllabic, except that [e:] does not 
contrast with a short vowel and is never so marked. In the earliest syllabic printing, 
long vowels were shown by slashed or bold syllables; the superposed dot was intend- 
ed as the vowel length diacritic only in handwriting. The marking of vowel length is 
now optional, a feature of pointed syllables. Some charts add an [a:] column 
(figure 59), some add three long vowel columns (figure 6 1 ), and some treat it on 
the side as a diacritic or omit it. 

Modified/? and t syllables are available in Eastern for [f] and |5] in foreign words. 
Barred y syllables have recently been proposed for Cree dialects with [5], only one of 
several recent local innovations in character inventory and shape. 



Sample of Northern Ojibwe in the Eastern Sy i labary 



i. Plain: 

2. Transliteration: 

3. Pointed: 

4. Transliteration: 

5. Orthography 1: 

6. Orthography 2: 

7. Transcription: 

8. Gloss: 



<AC -VC a Vo-C-b^qAPAAq b 

a-pi-ci we-tan e-ni-ta-wkash-wke-pi-ci-pi-i-kek 

<j"Ar -v^o- vo- ii ob u, -q/\rA ,i Aq Q - b 

ah-pi-ci wen-tan e-nih-ta-wkash-wke-pi-ci-plh-i-kenk 

aahpici wentan e-nihtaa-kwaashkwepicipii'ikenk 

Aapiji wendan e-nitaa-gwaashk webijibii' igeng 

aihpicfei wemdan e:nihta:g wa:Jk we :bi(%ibi:?ige:ng 
knowing.how. to . w ri te. syllables 



very.much is. easy 



/. <Co-C<do-XcLVJ b , 

2. pa-ta-ni-ta-a-ni-shi-na-pe-mok, 

3. < ,l C<r ll C<o- ll XQ.VJ ab , 

4. pah-ta-nih-ta-a-nih-shi-na-pe-monk, 

5. paahtaa-nihtaa-anihshinaapemonk, 

6. baataa-nitaa-anishinaabemong, 

7. ba:hta:nihta:?anihJina:be:mong 

8. being.able.to.speak.Ojibwe 



vc 

e-ta 

V"Cx 

eh-ta. 

ehta. 

eta. 

eihta 

only 



~l-Av/> 

me-wi-sha 

1-AV. 

me-win-sha 

mewinsha 

Mewinzha 

meiwin;5a 

long.ago 



o-LL 

ni-ma-ma 

o-LL 

ni-ma-ma 

nimaamaa 

nimaamaa 

nimaima: 

my.mother 



1. crP<rC>XA<Lnr" -<K 

2. ni-ki-ni-ta-o-shi-pi-a-ma-ti-min wa-sa 

j. o-po- ii c>j x A M <iLnr" -^"k 

4. ni-kl-nih-ta-o-shi-pih-a-ma-ti-min wah-sa 

5. nkii-nihtaa-oshipii'amaatimin waahsa 

6. ngii-nitaa-ozhibii'amaadimin waasa 

7. r)gi:nihta:?03ibi:?ama:dimin waihsa 

8. we.used.to.write.to.each.other far 

1. PCXPP^)<Ld l 7<\ or VC 

2. ki-ta-shi-ki-ki-no-a-ma-ko-ya-pan. a-mi eta 

3. pcxp |l p^ l, <iLdV L <:\ <r v»c 

4. ki-ta-shi-kih-ki-noh-a-ma-ko-yam-pan. a-mi eh ta 

5. kii-tashi-kihkino'amaakooyaampaan. amii ehta 

6. gii-dazhi-gikino'amaagooyaambaan. Amii eta 

7. gi:da3igihkino?ama:go:jaimba:n ami: eihta 

8. I.used.to.be.taught.there and.so only 



1. bOTPqCL* <cr" 

2. ka-o-ci-ki-ke-ta-man a-ni-n 

3. b>TP ,, q a cL ,L <16-" 

4. ka-on-ci-kih-ken-ta-man a-nln 

5. kaa-onci-kihkentamaan aaniin 

6. gaa-onji-gikendamaan aaniin 

7. gaioncfeigihkeindamain a:ni:n 

8. by.which.means.I.knew how 



VX-V< b 

e-shi-we-pak 

VX-V< b 

e-shi-we-pak 

eshiwepak 

ezhiwebag 

eijiweibag 

things.were.happening where.I.lived 



A-V OvTAAb" 

i-we o-shi-pi-i-kan 

A-V >SA n Ab* 

i-we o-shi-pih-i-kan 

iwe oshipii'ikan 

iwe ozhibii'igan 

iwe: 03ibi:?igan 

that letter/writing 

bA*rOr\ 

ka-i-shi-ta-yan. 

\>ASt)r\ 

ka-i-shi-ta-yan. 

kaa-ishitaayaan. 

gaa-izhidaayaan. 

ga:?i3ida:ja:n 



nm 



<PX , 7 
pa-ci-shi-ya 

KCSbr 

pa-ci-shi-ya 
Pacishiya 

6. Niin Bajishiya 

7. ni:n bad^ijija 

8. I Patricia 



2. 

3- ^ 

4. nin 

5. niin 



o-P-V^ 

ni-ki-we-si 

o-°-p-W 

nin-ki-wen-si 

Ninkiwensi 

Ningiwenzi 

ningiwe:nzi 

Ningewance 



'It's easy to write in syllabics, only once you are fluent in Ojibwe. Long ago my 
mother and I used to write to each other when I went to school far away (from 
home) Letters were the only way I knew what was happening back home. I'm 
Patricia Ningewance.' 

— Original text by Patricia Ningewance of Lac Seul, Ontario and Winnipeg, 
Manitoba, lecturer in Ojibwe at the University of Manitoba. 

Note: "Orthography 1" is Northern Ojibwe; "Orthography 2" is Southern Ojibwe (the writer's preference). 



THE WORLD ' S **** -ISSS-KSr 

WRITING SYSTEMS Peter ^ aniels ""sSSSl?^" ion v>; the cree syllabary 

William Bright , D „JA',™; ;J^2h«Z\^ 



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